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Meet the Marionettes — a Caribbean choir of distinction

Led by conductor Gretta Taylor since 1974, the Marionettes Chorale is one of the Caribbean’s leading performing arts groups and a national icon in Trinidad & Tobago. The first choir to be formed in newly independent Trinidad and Tobago in 1963, it quickly distinguished itself in Trinidad and Tobago’s Music Festival and internationally. The Youth Chorale was launched in 1995, followed by the Children’s Choir in 2012. The organisation was officially incorporated as a non-profit in Trinidad & Tobago in 2005, and has been sponsored since 1972 by bpTT. The 120-odd singers of these three community choirs, and most of their multi-generational artistic and production teams, are entirely volunteer.

The triumphant Marionettes ladies at the 1968 Music Festival

Formation

The choir was founded in 1963 by Jocelyn Pierre and June Williams-Thorne to compete in the 1964 Music Festival. It competed intermittently in the biennial festivals until 1980, adjudged on each occasion as the Most Outstanding Choir. After 1980, the choir was busy gaining respect on the international scene. Competing against the world’s finest choral groups, the Marionettes won several awards at international choral festivals and the praise of such distinguished musical figures as John Rutter, Philip Ledger, Andrew Carter, Gwyn Arch and Dr. Havelock Nelson.

Tours & cultural exchanges

The choir has toured extensively in Britain, the Caribbean, and North and Central America, receiving standing ovations from capacity audiences at prestigious venues like St Martin-in-the-Fields in London and the Hall of the Americas in Washington. At home, the Marionettes have hosted visiting choirs: the senior chorale appeared with the Carnegie Mellon choir (Ohio, USA), and the Youth Chorale with the Juniata College Choir (Pennsylvania, USA). The choir hosted visiting young string players from the UK who formed part of their 45th anniversary orchestra and again for Carmen in 2011.

The Marionettes perform at the Hall of the Americas, Organization of American States (OAS) Headquarters, in Washington, DC in 1997

The Marionettes perform at the Hall of the Americas, Organization of American States (OAS) Headquarters, in Washington, DC in 1997

Giving back to the community

The Marionettes regularly raises funds for charity, and in the last 10 years has donated nearly TT$3 million in aid of victims of domestic violence, regional hurricane relief efforts, cancer treatment and prevention, mentoring and rehabilitation programmes for at-risk youth, care for those with HIV/AIDS and the terminally ill, and the restoration of national monuments.

Throughout the year, they partner with organisations from all sectors of society to present fundraising concerts; guest at charity events; and each year host a gala fundraiser for their holiday Christmas concerts. A highlight for Marionettes in those series is also the traditional special Saturday matinée, a free performance for senior citizens and children from institutions across the island, which care for some of our society’s most vulnerable – including orphanages, hospices, nursing homes, and facilities which care for the differently abled.

The Marionettes’ Gretta Taylor, bpTT’s Robert Riley, and AMPLE’s Astra Da Costa raise fund for hurricane-ravaged Grenada

Youth Chorale & Children’s Choir

Over the years, many children’s and school choirs have guested at Marionettes concerts. In 1995, the Youth Chorale was formed to give young performers a serious musical outlet and environment. Featuring up to 100 members from over 50 schools nationwide, they now are joined by the Children’s Choir, formed in 2012. The nearly 100 talented youngsters across the two choirs – among them Music Festival, Panorama and Junior Calypso Monarch winners – are singers, dancers, actors, choreographers and instrumentalists who also have been outstanding exam performers, some going on to win national and international scholarships like the prestigious Rhodes, Commonwealth and Fulbright awards. The Youth Chorale and Children’s Choir are vital social tool, and a wonderful setting in which young people can grow and explore their talents while making new friends and finding new mentors.

The Marionettes Youth Chorale at Queen's Hall in 2017

The Marionettes Youth Chorale and Children’s Choir at Queen’s Hall in 2017

Leadership & Repertoire

Since 1974, the Marionettes has been led by Gretta Taylor as Artistic & Musical Director, and founder-member Joanne Mendes as Production Manager, with an artistic and production support teams which have grown over the years to include Susan Dore, Judith Gonsalves, Enrique Ali, Jacqueline Smith, Caroline Taylor, Lisa De Caires, Michelle Tardieu-Attale, Wendy Jeremie, Arielle Rostant, Dr Roger Henry, and several others serving on various committees and with invaluable portfolios. The choirs’ artistic and production teams, as well as their 120-odd singing members, are almost entirely volunteer.

Under Taylor’s leadership, the choir has developed a repertoire that spans a wide range of musical styles, from 16th-century Gabrieli to 20th-century Messiaen, as well as opera, spirituals, musical theatre, international folk songs, and calypso. It has always championed Trinidad and Tobago’s music, which it has performed extensively on overseas tours.

The Marionettes was one of the first to blend voices with steel in the 1960s, and have been accompanied by many top steel orchestras – Pan Am North Stars, Trinidad All Stars, Desperadoes, Skiffle Bunch, and their sister organisation, the bpTT Renegades. Composers including the late Dr Havelock Nelson, Stewart Hylton Edwards and Alma Pierre have dedicated original works to the choir.

Enjolras at the Barricades in the Marionettes Chorale’s production of “Les Misérables” at Queen’s Hall in 2014. Photo courtesy Maria Nunes

Sponsorship

Crucial to the longevity of the choir and its contribution to the community is the support of bpTT (formerly Amoco), which has sponsored the Marionettes for over 40 years. “BP Trinidad and Tobago has been keenly associated with the Marionettes for an incredible [40] years, and with each year the partnership has reached new heights of achievement. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with this group on projects that heal both mind and body, and we are happy that others can benefit through this partnership,” explained BP’s Robert Riley in 2012.

Added Marionettes production manager Joanne Mendes: “Without that support, the challenge of sustaining the choirs over a long period would have been a hundred times harder. This has been a model of thoughtful, well-targeted cultural support by a major corporation in Trinidad & Tobago.”

For several years, the TTT Ltd (and its predecessor the Caribbean New Media Group) and Flow Trinidad have also served as media sponsors.

The Marionettes made history in 1968 as the first choir to perform with a steel orchestra — the Pan Am Jet North Stars at Queen’s Hall, conducted by Jocelyn Pierre

Legacy & Property Fund

In addition to founding the dynamic Youth Chorale and new Children’s Choir, and with an eye for self-sustainability, the choir launched the Marionettes Property Fund in 2001 to raise funds to build their own home.

In 2006, Murchison Brown – then Mayor of Port of Spain and a founder member of the Marionettes – presented the Chorale with the deed for a plot of land. In 2016, all planning permissions and approvals for the Property Fund were approved.Click here to donate to the Property Fund!

Aerial plans of the Marionettes Property in Port of Spain

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